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Samita Sen

Image for Sen appointment pieceI joined the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, as the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History in November 2018.  I had obtained my Ph.D from this faculty in 1992 and continued as a Research Fellow at Trinity College for another two years.  I have from time to time visited Cambridge for brief stints in the intervening years, but to all intents and purposes, I return now to Cambridge (and to Trinity College as a teaching fellow) after nearly twenty-five years.  This is a homecoming of a different sort.

My doctoral work was on women workers in the jute industry of Bengal.  The dissertation was published as a book in 1999.  I have stuck to the themes of gender and labour for thirty years, even though I have wandered in many different directions and, in recent years, included survey-based work on contemporary themes.  Unlike in many other parts of the world, where the issue of women and work have attracted researchers, in South Asia, historical scholarship has been voluminous on gender and on labour but there is little interest in taking the two categories together. 

I remain curious about how better to understand capitalism by gendering labour.  While there has been some dominant common tropes for this kind of enquiry, recent research suggests that the relationship is highly dynamic and varies considerably in time and space.  The variations, shifts and tensions are the primary focus of my work.

In recent years, these questions have become more compelling.  In interdisciplinary locations, including the disciplines of economics, sociology and anthropology, there is now a burgeoning interest in the issue of gender and work.  Indian scholars (especially feminist scholars) have responded to the feminisation and informalisation debates in prolific ways.  As in many other parts of the world, in the very recent past, questions of the care economy and care work are attracting new research.  These international theoretical and political currents have influenced me greatly.  In recent years, I have investigated the situation of domestic workers in Kolkata, which was published as a co-written book entitled Domestic Days in 2016.  This work drew me into the movement for unionisation of domestic workers in Kolkata.  This practical and activist engagement has re-energised my involvement.  I hope to write another book on the subject in the next year or two.

The three questions thrown up by this work—migration, informality and collectivisation—led me to investigate migration of single women, trafficking in one district of West Bengal (the state in which Kolkata is located) and the case of one category of highly informal transport workers, who have also a very high rate of unionisation. 

Some of these concerns have also animated my historical research in the past couple of decades.  I have been hunting the archives to see what they yield on domestic workers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, since this remains a largely untold story.  Alongside, my interest in migration also abides.  I have sought to understand the logistics of migration in India in the late colonial period, focusing on the couple of million indentured workers, who went to the tea plantations of Assam.  This book is almost written and should be in press soon.  I am also researching gender issues in migration of indentured workers from India to plantations in the island colonies, which created a vast global labour diaspora. 

My other interest is on questions of marriage, which intersect with questions of labour and migration.  I have published several papers on this subject.  In this too, I am being somewhat obstinate.  In recent years, historians have written about marriage, law and social reform primarily from published material in Indian languages not broaching the colonial state’s archives.  I want to understand marriage in relationship to labour, however, and am convinced that such a story can be told if we combine these two kinds of materials and perspectives.  This too will be a book, I hope!  It has been in the making for the past twenty years and I still fear to give it a deadline.